Secrecy Check: Security Clearance Numbers Appear to Grow; Exact Number Still Murky

For the past three years, one aspect of the growth of the classified universe has been indicated by the number of security clearances. On October 1, 2012 personnel deemed eligible for clearance numbered 4,917,751, a 1.1 percent growth from the year before. Of course, these numbers do not tell the whole story. The Office of the Director of National Intelligence (ODNI) is required to report on the number of personnel “deemed eligible” for clearance, not the number of personnel granted access to classified information. Employees are given access on a “need to know” basis. Apparently, ODNI does not think the public needs to know that information. We disagree: an increase in clearances means more individuals who could derivatively classify documents, funneling more classified documents into an already overloaded and broken declassification system.

Our 2012 Secrecy Report grappled with the difficulties of measuring secrecy amid an ever growing national security sector and many “unknown unknowns.” We noted then (September 2012) that the Senate-authored version of the Intelligence Authorization Act of 2013 would have removed the reporting requirement, taking a piece of the national security puzzle about which we knew something and making it – once again – another “known unknown.”

OpenTheGovernment.org was part of a successful effort to preserve the requirement. We were joined by 27 groups in a letter opposing the bill, as introduced, for several provisions, including the removal of the requirement. We wrote, “In the two years that the report has been produced, it has dramatically altered our conception of the size and scale of the personnel security clearance system, and has been of great public interest.”  The millions of security clearances are a symptom of excessive secrecy and overclassification, and the report is a necessary indicator of its expansion.  

As Steven Aftergood of Secrecy News notes, we cannot know if this is the largest the security system has ever been.  Until 2010, the growth of the security system was only estimated by the Government Accountability Office; its 2009 estimate of 2.4 million clearances turned out to underestimate the number by 50 percent. The public deserves more than estimates to inform its debate about its national security and secrecy system. The reporting requirement provides a bit of clarity in an increasingly obscure government sector. We hope its example spreads to other “known unknowns.”

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